How to Take Your Webcam Presence to the Next Level

How to Take Your Webcam Presence to the Next Level

Whether you’re working remotely or recording videos for YouTube, producing a high-quality video can require some smart gear decisions. Your Macbook’s built-in webcam and mic are fine, but spending just a small amount can translate to a huge improvement in quality. Here are the essentials, along with recommendations at a variety of price points, to set up your perfect streaming and recording setup.

The Camera

It’ll be difficult to find a webcam right now, with most models being sold out everywhere. While this is just a temporary surge in demand, it doesn’t help you if you need a camera now. Instead, consider some of the alternatives that have popped up over the last few weeks.

If you’re on Fstoppers, the odds are good that you already have a camera or video camera of some kind. Depending on the model, it may support video over HDMI, allowing you to use a capture card. A capture card is a piece of hardware that lets you connect your camera’s HDMI output to a format that your computer can record or stream. B&H has some coming in and out of stock, like Magewell’s USB Capture HDMI or Elgato’s Game Capture HD60, while Amazon also lists a variety of less recognizable names in the space. With demand for webcams spilling over into this space, even these are out of stock, but seem to have less demand overall than webcams.

If you have a recent Canon camera from their EOS, Vixia, or Powershot lines, you may not need the capture device at all. Canon’s EOS Webcam Utility Software offers the ability to plug and play with webcam-like functionality, using only a USB cable.

For Nikon and Canon users, SparkoCam is easy to use the desktop app for Windows that offers support for a wide range of cameras. The app is free to use but will watermark your videos unless purchased for $30.

If you instead want to use your phone as a webcam, there are dozens of apps available. The simplest solution is an app called iCam, as it’s compatible with both macOS and Windows, along with both iOS and Android phones. At $5, it’s an inexpensive way to ensure easy compatibility. If you’re a little more tech-savvy, look into NDI’s implementation with their NDI HX drivers. You’ll get low latency and professional tools, along with broad compatibility.

Regardless of your choice of camera connection, keep in mind the basics of recording still apply. The quality of video AF implementations varies, so consider using manual focus to set a fixed point, along with stopping down enough to preserve the depth of field. Additionally, the built-in mics for many cameras are not good, so an external microphone may make a significant difference in audio quality.

The Microphone

When it comes to microphones, you’ve got dozens of viable options. If you’re planning on specialty uses or want to use your microphone for more than just desktop-based voice recording, consider basing your mic choice around that instead. If, however, you’re just looking to step up from your computer’s built-in mic, you significantly improve audio quality for a pretty small cost.

If you’re trying to keep your equipment budget down, choosing a USB or 3.5mm mic over XLR will help. Going with XLR will give you more flexibility when recording multiple mics, but again, for typical use, you’ll be just fine with a single USB mic.

When it comes to condenser versus dynamic mics, it’s again a question of use. If you’re planning on recording vocals in your room, you’ll be well served with a condenser mic. The actual recording mechanism in these mics offers greater sensitivity, but can also pick up more background sound — think your keyboard and mouse, air conditioner, or other noise sources that might be bleeding into your room.

At just $49 at the time of writing, the Blue Snowball iCE is a great value and a simple upgrade, as it doesn’t require preamps or other hardware for use. The cardioid pattern can help reduce background noise pickup, while the mic offers 16-bit, 44.1 kHz output. It even comes with a basic tripod stand.

Moving up the price scale, the Rode NT-USB MINI is another all-in-one package, pairing a condenser mic with a cardioid pattern and a built-in stand. Over the Snowball, this mic adds a built-in pop filter and a more premium stand, along with a headphone amplifier for monitoring and a higher quality audio output at 24-bit, 48 kHz.

If you’re looking for a mic that offers the ability to record with additional patterns, enabling things like stereo recording, omnidirectional recordings for ambiance, or bidirectional recording for impromptu duets or interviews, check out the classic Blue Yeti.  The mic offers those selectable patterns thanks to its tri-capsule setup, supported by 16-bit, 48 kHz recording. The mic is quite a bit bigger, however, and if you’re positioned too far from it, it may not provide the best audio quality, making it suboptimal for webcam use without a boom arm.

Want even more choices? B&H has an entire sublisting of mics selected for use in web streaming, giving you hundreds of additional options.

Regardless of your selected mic, unless you have a dedicated studio setup, you may have to deal with some background noise leaking in. If you have a recent RTX graphics card from Nvidia, you can use their newly released RTX Voice utility to suppress any background noise. The results are truly impressive, and this video from Linus Tech Tips probably best demonstrates just what it’s capable of.

Essentially, the software uses the card’s AI capabilities to strip out any background noise from your mic’s recording, all in real-time. Furthermore, since the app works as a virtual device, it’s compatible with a huge range of apps, including most chat apps, OBS, Twitch, and more.

One of the biggest hardware upgrades you can make to a mic is adding a pop filter. This little screen sits in front of your mic, breaking up the fast-moving air from hard P sounds, like the first p in “popping.”

Conclusion

If you just need to hop into the occasional Zoom call or just want to chat with some friends over Facetime, your device’s built-in mic and webcam will work just fine. If you’re looking for higher quality video and audio, however, you can make huge improvements in quality for less than $150. 

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3 Comments

"If you’re planning on recording vocals in your room, you’ll be well served with a condenser mic."

Unless your room is an acoustically treated studio space, then no, no, no, no, NO. For less-than-ideal acoustic spaces a dynamic mic like an ATR-2100 (lower end) or Electrovoice RE-20 (higher end) is far more suitable than a condenser mic which is going to be far more sensitive to room noise and acoustic reflections.

As someone who records and edits a podcast with a wide variety of different locations and qualities of mic- I'd like to agree that a condenser mic is only any good in a well-treated room. For most situations you are better off with a dynamic mic (either one of the few USB mics, or an XLR mic and a USB interface or mixer with a USB output)

Alex Coleman's picture

For someone video-chatting in their room, I wouldn't expect background noise to be a huge consideration. Availability, ease of use, and cost also have to be considered - beyond just absolute technical audio quality. Either type will be a step up from their computer's built in mic, or an iPhone headphones mic.